German language and culture skills: One way to stand out as a job candidate

When I was an associate professor of German, one area of program growth I was keenly interested in was language for specific purposes (LSP), otherwise known as a “Business German” or “German For Your Career” track. By making tangible connections between what students learned in the German program and internship or employment opportunities after graduation, this track: (1) helped to attract new students to the program; (2) appealed to parents worried about the utility of their child studying German; (3) promised to develop strong alumni relations as students graduated and were placed in an internship or job; (4) cultivated useful relations with industry and business; and (5) helped to demonstrate the vitality and relevancy of the German program to the university administration. The track was enhanced by a business German speaker series and blended learning environment that layered LSP instruction over introductory German language courses. I was also able to publish an article describing the instructional design and implementation of the program and had plans for releasing course materials as open educational resources.

Although the track seemed to make sense from my position as associate professor, I was really interested in how industry and business would interpret my efforts. These areas would, after all, be the final judge by hiring the graduates that completed the track. In other words, and using terminology with which industry and business would be familiar, would a graduate with business German skills be a marketable commodity? To find the answer to this question, I conducted a survey in early 2015 of approximately 800 businesses associated with the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Southern United States (GACC South). In was interesting to note that, based on information provided by the respondents, German industry and business in the GACC South seemed to be concentrated in two areas: (1) companies with more than 10,000 employees and (2) companies with 20 to 499 employees. My guess would be that this data reflects, to a certain degree, the larger automotive and engineering companies in the Southeast United States (e.g., BMW, Continental, and Siemens), and the Mittelstand companies that support these companies:

Chart_Q3_150321

Although the survey did have a large margin or error on account of low response rates, it did indicate some interesting trends worthy of further investigation. Particularly encouraging to me were the findings that second language fluency and familiarity with a non-American culture are highly marketable skills sought by industry. Hiring advantages could be realized, the survey found, when undergraduate science, communications, and business majors are complemented by study of a second language and culture and enriched by a serious study abroad or international internship experience. Here are the bar graphs showing survey questions and response frequency on a 7-point Likert scale:

To catch any ideas that I might have overlooked, I also designed the survey with a field permitting open-ended responses and feedback. These are the responses that I found most insightful and useful:

Students need to learn and understand that real life isn’t multiple choice. It is neither structured nor sequential. There is no end of term exam and knowledge of subjects and classes, which the students successfully passed, are still required and cannot simply be deleted from the students memory bank. Key is a students ability to successfully integrate, transfer and continuously apply ALL the things he/she learned AT THE SAME TIME. The real world is complex, competitive, unfair and tough. In simple terms, it is REAL rather than superficial and academic. Hence, most students have a tough time to transition from the very sheltered and highly structured, protected academic environment to the real world without rules, grades and exams, where the only thing that matter is success.

– Employee, environmental equipment maintenance company, 100-499 employees

Language and (business) culture are the keys for success in our global market. Of course, we need skilled, hard working grads who bring the right attitude and we find them. However, only very few bring in addition the understanding of the (German) language / culture. The ones who do, are the ones we hire in most cases.

– Employee, transportation company, 10,000+ employees

Language and cross-cultural skills are frosting on the cake. But the “cake” is a strong foundation in a basic field: accounting; engineering; science.; etc. We see so many kids spending summers abroad and taking “international’ courses at the expense of learning important basic skills. It does no good to understand German culture if you majored in something easy and graduate with no better skills than when you started…..which happens all too often. Mere language skill and cross-cultural familiarity will not get you a job.

– Employee, law firm, 750-999 employees

Common sense. Inform yourself. Don’t assume that with a GPA of 3.5 or better you know everything. Start small and grow.

– Employee, capital goods company, 100-499 employees

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